As Italo Ratings Plummet, Broadcasters Search For Life

Italy’s enduring economic slump has continued to put a crimp in offerings of pubcaster RAI and Fininvest-owned commercial webs, as expenses are drastically cut and acquisitions’ budgets remain tight.

Despite the sustained outcry from the industry about the need for new players to challenge the long-standing duopoly, the country’s small-screen panorama remains in a rut.

At the top of the ratings scale, little has changed. With the exception of the odd film premiere (“Ghost” and “Basic Instinct” on Canale 5 in 1994), soccer and sequins continue to rule supreme.

Last year’s highest-rated program was Italy’s July 13 World Cup match, which notched up close to 13.5 million viewers. Other top spots were taken by the San Remo Italian song festival, an annual kitsch extravaganza that pulled between 11 million and 13.4 million viewers over four nights. The World Cup and San Remo went out on RAI-1, but the latter has long been tipped to be snatched by Canale 5.

Other offerings that overtook the 10 million mark in 1994 were variety/game show “Let’s Make a Bet” (RAI-1), political satire “Banana Skins” (RAI-1) and Canale 5’s Saturday-night serving of romantic tiffs and reconciliations, “Strangelove” – recently the subject of a media squabble following the revelation that one of its supposed real-life subjects was a paid impostor.

U.S. series such as “Beverly Hills, 90210” and “Melrose Place,” which air on youth web Italia 1, continue to rate well. The main acquisitions’ push across the Italo spectrum appears to be toward series and telefilms strong enough to sustain popular early evening or lunch-time slots.

“The kind of quality program we go for doesn’t vary much from year to year,” says Silvio Berlusconi Communications U.S.-based acquisitions’ honcho Daniele Lorenzano. “Sitcoms often prove difficult for the Italian market regardless of their success in America, but if a drama or action series is a hit in the U.S., it will probably work in Italy too.”

One change shows a move away from multiple-episode miniseries to single telefilms.

“Non-Italian miniseries – U.S. or European – are continually more difficult for us to place in primetime,” says RAI acquisitions’ chief Andrea Melodia. “As a result, we’re buying less of them than in the past.”

“The competition is too strong to guarantee that a program will extend its viewership over two or three nights,” adds Lorenzano. “Only those with a precise target audience, like the two new Stephen King series we’ve just bought, still work in Italy.”

The trend applies to imports and homegrown productions. “We’re finding Italian telemovies easier to sell than series, especially to newer markets like those in Asia,” Melodia says.

After continual growth since the start of the ’90s, ratings of public, private, national and local webs have dropped in the past year by 6% to 18%, depending on the region. A recent Auditel survey clocked just over 26.75 million primetime viewers during the fall of 1994, against almost 27.5 million a year earlier.

Observers point to a long line of factors as being responsible for the Italo tube’s general drop in popularity. Foremost among them is media magnate Silvio Berlusconi’s entry into politics. This brought a heightened public awareness of television’s power as a political propaganda tool, which may have encouraged some folks to switch off.

Reshuffling of exec positions at RAI also has brought about a less dynamic lineup, particularly at RAI-3. The web’s traditionally alternative image and distinct leftist slant have come under heavy attack from an increasingly conservative government.

Perhaps as a direct result of the country’s swing toward right-wing morality, a general push is in evidence to strengthen children’s programming. Indie web TeleMonteCarlo has elected to go up against the competition’s early evening news slots with kids cartoons, and RAI lately has been beefing up its library of children’s films and animation.

The only national webs continuing to show a moderate growth pattern in the current sickly climate are RAI-1 and Canale 5, family oriented flagships of the pubcaster and Fininvest respectively.

With upcoming national referenda on TV laws threatening to limit ownership by a single entity to one or, at most, two channels, the concentration of high-ratings programs on Canale 5 – often at the expense of sister webs Rete 4 and Italia 1 – may be part of a Fininvest strategy to safeguard against the loss of one or both channels.

Hardest hit by plummeting ratings is Rete 4, which goes for the femme demographic with a lineup heavy on Latin-American soaps.